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Wilshirite: Nicene Christianity 8

Here is the next installment of guest blogger Craig’s interaction with Nicene Christianity by Christopher R. Seitz:

In the Nicene Creed, we confess:

On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

In the resurrection, all that Jesus is and all that He did reach their crescendo. Jesus?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ resurrection is the answer of God to all claims and acts of the Christ. It is the divine ?¢‚Ǩ?ìYes?¢‚Ǩ¬ù to the triumph of the divine love over the emptiness of sin and death, and the opening of the divine life to all of humanity. Nothing less than all of this is at stake when we ask, ?¢‚Ǩ?ìDid the resurrection really happen? Can we still be Christian if we don?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was raised from the dead??¢‚Ǩ¬ù

It should be obvious to anyone who follows this trek through Nicene Christianity that the answer is, ?¢‚Ǩ?ìYes, the resurrection did happen; and no, you cannot be a Christian if you deny the resurrection.?¢‚Ǩ¬ù Christians understand the identity of God by the event of Jesus?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ resurrection. Without the resurrection, there is no God of the New Testament. So, to deny the reality of the resurrection is to no longer be recognizably Christian. Any faith that denies the resurrection?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùwhatever it is to be called?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùcannot be termed Christianity.

Carl Braaten unpacks this logic in his Nicene Christianity treatment of these questions, ?¢‚Ǩ?ìThe Reality of the Resurrection?¢‚Ǩ¬ù:

Jesus said, ?¢‚Ǩ?ìNo one comes to the Father except through me?¢‚Ǩ¬ù (John 14:6). For us this means that we have no way into the heart of God the Father except through His Son and the Spirit whom he sent. If Jesus had not been raised, he might have been vaguely remembered as an unsuccessful leader of a tiny Palestinian sect. At best he would be recognized as a teacher of religion and ethics, like Socrates or Gautama, but not as the Savior. If Jesus had not been raised, his special claim to divine authority to forgive sins would have been discredited by his crucifixion. A new event was needed to confirm Jesus?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ claim to stand in for God, to do the things that only God can do. Jesus had spoken and acted as though he were on the inside of God?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s will for the world. His encroachment on the authority of God, as the Jewish leaders felt so keenly, was blasphemy unless his claim was to be legitimated. The resurrection was an act by which God identified himself with the cause of Jesus, vindicating Jesus?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ claim to represent the kingdom of heaven in his earthly ministry. At the same time, the resurrection was an act of God by which the cause of Jesus could be continued in history and not terminated by humiliation on a criminal’s cross. Thus the resurrection is the pivotal point in the story we love to tell about Jesus and his love. From henceforth both God and Jesus will become interchangeable subjects of the same predicates in Christian discourse, in Christian prayer and praise, worship and proclamation. (110-111)

Having laid this groundwork of what the resurrection means to the Christian understanding of God, Braaten takes to task those who would deny the historicity of the resurrection, particularly members of the Jesus Seminar in their quest for the so-called ?¢‚Ǩ?ìhistorical Jesus?¢‚Ǩ¬ù:

Today, Christian theology is in a life and death struggle to set itself free from the long shadow of death cast by the secular canons of historical reason that have prevailed in post-Enlightenment Protestant theology…. In a deeper sense, the death we are talking about is the ?¢‚Ǩ?ìdeath of God?¢‚Ǩ¬ù because the God of Christian faith is the one who raised Jesus from the dead. It is very appropriate that we consider the reality of the resurrection in the context of the trinitarian structure of the whole Christian creed. When the hermeneutical framework of the creed, with its trinitarian and christological dogmas, was set aside as irrelevant to historical inquiry and interpretation, things began to come unglued. History was studied as though God did not exist. The historicity of Jesus?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ resurrection was debated as a naked fact of the past, as though it could bear any significance one way or another apart from the God whose act it was. (109)

Braaten examines the resurrection as an event and what its meaning must be, weaving through the two prevailing theories and their supporters. The one theory?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùwhich denies the reality of the resurrection?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùleads to something other than the faith of the Christian Scriptures. Philip Schaff expands on this theory in Volume 1 of his master work, The History of the Christian Church:

Their wish was father to the belief, their belief was father to the fact, and the belief, once started, spread with the power of a religious epidemic from person to person and from place to place. The Christian society wrought the miracle by its intense love for Christ. Accordingly the resurrection does not belong to the history of Christ at all, but to the inner life of his disciples. It is merely the embodiment of their reviving faith.

The orthodox theory that the resurrection really happened was held by Wolfhart Pannenberg, Karl Barth, and Rudolf Bultmann. [Update: See the Comments for a clarification of how Bultmann fits into Braaten’s argument.] The debate among these theologians has historically been about where the meaning of the resurrection is located?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùhistorically (Pannenberg) or eschatologically (Barth and Bultmann).

When Barth put the resurrection beyond history and therefore outside the historian’s field of competence, he was using the term history in the way modern secular historians ordinarily use it. (112)

That is, Barth?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s understanding of history was as a closed system having no outside interference, interpreted solely through human experience. Braaten continues:

I fully agree with Pannenberg that it would be better for Christian theology to exempt itself from a thoroughgoing secular view of history so that God-statements and history-statements are not placed on different tracks, leading to acute epistemological schizophrenia. Christian theology cannot tolerate a split consciousness in which the work of biblical exegetes is done in the everyday world of secular experience, obeying Troeltsch?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s axioms, and dogmatic theologians take refuge in a sacred asylum of church doctrine or religious experience. God cannot be happy about being made a stranger in the very world that he created and that continues under his providential guidance. The confession that God raised Jesus from the dead is a public truth, not a private opinion. (113)

Braaten concludes his essay by analyzing whether we can know what really happened on Easter morning. We have all of the objective proofs and analytic reasons to believe that Jesus really was raised from the dead as a real event in history. However, Christ appeared to his disciples after he was raised so that they would believe, not because they already had faith. We have what Christ?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s disciples had?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùan empty tomb. They followed Christ because of their faith in the One who appeared to them in spite of death, and so do we. They believed in the God who identified himself with Jesus?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ cause through the resurrection, and so do we. They were, however, closer to Christ in time, so we must rely on their testimonies and accounts.

In the end, none of us comes to faith under our own initiative or power; rather, the Holy Spirit makes the resurrection of Jesus real for us through our own death and resurrection.

technorati tags: christianity, christopher r. seitz, ecumenism, nicene christianity, nicene creed, orthodoxy



  1. D. P. says:

    I’m intrigued by the suggestion that Bultmann believed the resurrection “really happened.” What evidence does Braaten offer for this position–which runs counter to everything I think I know about Bultmann’s theology?


  2. Craig says:

    As I went back to reread the details of Braaten’s review of the resurrection on pp 111-114, I was obviously sloppy in combining Bultmann’s name with Pannenberge’s and Barth’s in believing in the resurrection as a historical event. Braaten makes it clear where Bultmann ended up, e.g.,

    “Bultmann’s postulate has become the mantra of many exegetes and theologians: ‘An historical fact which involves a resurrection from the dead is utterly inconceivable.’ ” (p. 113)

    So, you’re right that Bultmann didn’t believe in the resurrection as a real event, believing instead that the reality of the resurrection in the “faith of the disciples and the first community of believers”. (pp 113-114) Braaten uses Bultmann and this section of the essay to lay out the two extremes of the emphasizing an “eschatological” meaning to the resurrection: Barth, who continued to maintain the resurrection’s historicity, and Bultmann, who denied it. Braaten also adds Pannenberg to his examination to represent a historical view of the resurrection, in contrast to Barth’s and Bultmann’s view of the the resurrection as an eschatological event.

    I did a poor job in framing this section of the paper. The real debate Braaten examines is the Resurrection as Event and Meaning. At one point, I had plans to interact with this section of Braaten’s essay in more detail. But the length of my own essay was growing inordinate, so I never went back and cleaned this part up.

    Sorry about that….


  3. D. P. says:

    No problem, and thanks for the clarification. I thought I could see “hints” in your essay that this was the way Braaten was heading, but I didn’t want to presume. Thanks again for putting so much work into these pieces! 🙂


  4. Craig says:

    Now that you’ve reminded me of this weak point in my interaction with Braaten’s essay, I see if I can tease that section out a bit, correct the confusion, and more explicitly highlight Braaten’s examination. I’ll let you know if and when I complete an addendum.


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